What it means in 2013 – and why Sinéad O’Connor thinks the idea is totally cool. John Meagher reports
The notion of excommunication holds a special place in the imagination of Irish people. It used to be threatened to those Catholics who considered studying at Trinity College Dublin and to anyone who engaged in paramilitary activity.
This week, it has returned to the public consciousness after Cardinal Seán Brady refused to rule out the possibility that TDs voting in favour of abortion legislation would be excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
"That is down the line at the moment, as far as we are concerned," Brady told media at an anti-abortion vigil held at Knock, Co Mayo, last week.
"It (our job) is to convince the electorate first of all and the legislators.
"We know what the law is about excommunication, about abortion, that's a fact."
While the embattled cardinal is likely to be more au fait with the intricacies of Canon Law than most, the word "excommunication" remains a potent one – as anyone with a Twitter account could testify to in the proceeding days.
Brady – who has been heavily criticised for his failure to take leadership in the clerical abuse scandals – was dismissed as out-of-touch by some, especially those who questioned why the cardinal hadn't broached the topic of excommunication when it came to paedophile priests.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there about excommunication," says Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic. "It's almost never imposed – especially in an Irish context. It's much more about people choosing to excommunicate themselves or automatically applied when a law is contravened rather than following a specific inquiry.
"The Canon Laws from 1983 list a series of 'sins', which incur automatic excommunication – everything from procuring an abortion to striking the Pontiff."
Among the offences that carry the penalty of automatic excommunication are: apostasy (the repudiation of the Christian faith); heresy; schism (the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or the refusal to be in communion with members of the church who are in communion with him); and consecrating a bishop without authorisation.
According to Canon Law, automatic excommunication for abortion applies not only to the woman who has the abortion, but to "all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and this includes those accomplices [medical staff, for example] without whose help the crime would not have been committed".
No one is automatically excommunicated for any offence if, without any fault of their own, they were unaware that they were violating a law. The same, according to Canon Law, applies "if one was a minor, had the imperfect use of reason or was forced through grave or relatively grave fear".
Kelly says that while excommunication is still very much part of church doctrine, it is not mentioned as much as it used to be when John Charles McQuaid was the all-powerful Archbishop of Dublin in the middle decades of the 20th Century.
"The threat of excommunication would have carried far greater weight then than it does now because the church had such a central role in Irish life.
"Don't forget that when [Ireland's first president] Douglas Hyde died, the Catholic cabinet members would not attend the service because it was taking place in a Protestant church. They waited outside, instead. It would be very hard to imagine something similar happening in Ireland today."
Although the threat of excommunication hung over Catholics who wished to attend the so-called Protestant University of Trinity, no such sanction was ever imposed. Special dispensation from the church would be sought to enable practising Catholics to attend the country's most prestigious university.
The "ban" on Catholics attending TCD was finally abolished in 1970.
There is considerable confusion about just who has and hasn't been excommunicated. The high-profile case of the rebel priest Pat Buckley, who was consecrated as a bishop outside the church, apparently excommunicated himself in 1998. Contrary to popular belief at the time, excommunication was not imposed on him from the Vatican.
In fact, one has to go back as far as 1920 for the last time an Irish person had excommunication imposed on them. It happened during the War of Independence and was declared by Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork.
Alarmed by the scale of the violence that had engulfed his diocese, he insisted "that anyone who organised or took part in an ambush or in kidnapping or otherwise shall be guilty of murder, or attempt at murder, shall incur by the very fact the censure of excommunication".
A number of Republicans were subsequently excommunicated and it has been suggested that future Taoiseach Éamon de Valera was among those who suffered the censure.
"It was the last known occasion in which excommunications were imposed in Ireland," says Fr Michael Mullaney, professor of Canon Law at Maynooth. "You have to remember that excommunication is seen as a measure of last resort and anyone who correctly understands its meaning uses it carefully and advisedly.
"It can be imposed on priests who violate the seal of confession and is automatically applied to those who publicly repudiate the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith.
"Imposed excommunication theoretically could be declared by bishops in Ireland, but it would only be imposed after a full and proper judicial process. It's rarely invoked anywhere in the world."
The professor is anxious to point out that excommunication is not seen as punishment but a censure that encourages the bearer to seek reconciliation. He says there are other severe penalties in church law to deal with crimes such as paedophilia. "Excommunication is lifted once the person has expressed remorse and wishes to be reconciled."
One of the most celebrated cases of excommunication in the history of the church occurred in Australia in 1870. Sister Mary MacKillop, a nun of Scottish descent, exposed a clerical paedophila in a parish north of Adelaide and was excommunicated for bringing the church into disrepute.
A number of the priests who she accused of child abuse were of Irish descent, and the bishop who had excommunication imposed on her, Laurence Sheil, was originally from Wexford. On his death bed and presumably overcome by remorse, Sheil ordered her excommunication to be lifted.
Sr MacKillop's reputation grew to such an extent after her own death that she would eventually be canonised by Pope Benedict in 2010. She is, to date, Australia's only saint.
While the threat of imposed excommunication may have been a real fear in an Ireland dominated by John Charles McQuaid, for many people today the notion of self- or automatic excommunication is simply a badge of honour.
Controversial pop star Sinéad O'Connor has, by any reckoning, been automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church. She has been in contravention of Canon Law by at least two counts, having regularly spoken about the two abortions she had earlier in her life, and the eye-catching career move of being ordained a priest by radical Tridentine bishop, Michael Cox, in 1999.
In an email exchange with Weekend Review this week, O'Connor – also known as Mother Bernadette Mary – expressed her delight to have incurred such a penalty: "How cool to be excommunicated! That's cooler than a parental advisory sticker!"
Despite this, the Nothing Compares 2 U singer expressed disappointment on learning that she had not had excommunication imposed on her by the Vatican, as she had been led to believe.
"Where's my cert? I want to have a document to show the grandchildren."